On a First Name Basis
Review by Sean McQuaid
Ah, Victoria-by-the-Sea. The seashore, the shops, the tree-lined streets... it’s been several years since I last sampled the village’s enduring charms, chief among them the lovely Victoria Playhouse, so I was keen to review that venue’s premiere of Norm Foster’s 2011 comedy On a First Name Basis.
Full disclosure: the show’s directors Rob MacLean and Melissa Mullen are recurring collaborators of ye olde reviewer, as is their female lead’s father, so factor that into your reading accordingly. I’m wearing my Heartless Reviewer hat as I type this — less stylish yet more on-task than my “Goofy Through the Years” cap from Walt Disney World — but one never knows when my icy resolve might waver.
On a First Name Basis was written by Foster for his old friend Patricia Vanstone, and he has since co-starred in many productions of the show with her. Victoria’s version of this tidy two-hander stars Lee J. Campbell as wealthy spy novelist David Kilbride and Martha Irving as his long-suffering maid, Lucy Hooperstaad.
The play builds from a simple premise: the comically self-involved Kilbride belatedly realizes that he knows almost nothing about Miss Hooperstaad — not even her first name — despite their decades together; so he insists on chatting informally after her shift one night, wanting to know her better. Liquor and secrets alike are uncorked as the evening unfolds, and Kilbride learns a great deal more than he bargained for.
The entire plot is a relatively physically static dialogue between two characters in a single room, so Foster’s words are key. Mostly that’s to the play’s benefit — there are tons of funny lines here with scarcely a clunker among them, and there’s also a fun recurring motif about the meaning of words and phrases that works well as a conversational complication, an intellectual exercise and a plain old running gag.
That being said, the play’s sheer volume of words is a mixed blessing. Foster’s script gets repetitive in spots — the many jokes about Lucy taking umbrage at David’s implied snobbery net diminishing comedic returns past a certain point, for instance; and in a play full of revelations, the ratio of telling to showing can potentially feel more expository or explanatory than emotional by times, depending on how the actors spin it. At least one of Irving’s later speeches bogs down a bit in this regard.
Speaking of Irving, she and Campbell seemed a bit uncertain of their words on opening night, with occasional hesitations, self-corrections, repetitions and such, including at least one audible assist from a prompter. With a creative team this accomplished, I’m confident any such hiccups won’t last long, and Campbell & Irving are consistently charming, entertaining leads regardless — hence the hearty, frequent audience laughter.
Also charming: W. Scott MacConnell’s simple but attractive scenic design, which sketches David’s mansion for us with two bookcases, a couple of chairs, a table and a central mantle/fireplace combo, all nicely lit. It’s a pleasant place to while away an evening, and Victoria’s lively production of Foster’s witty script feels right at home.
—Playing select dates to September 3 at Victoria Playhouse. Tickets available at victoriaplayhouse.com.